Over 785,000 people around the world took to the streets this weekend as part of the biggest Global Climate March in history. In over 2300 events across 175 countries people called on leaders to take urgent action to tackle climate change by signing an ambitious climate agreement at the UN Climate Summit, COP21. While many people were disappointed that the climate marches planned for Paris this past weekend were cancelled for security reasons, I see this massive global turnout as an important step on the road to building solidarity on climate issues beyond conference rooms and beyond environmental activists.
In the aftermath of the abhorrent attacks in Paris two weeks ago, French authorities withdrew permission to hold a huge march in Paris this past Sunday, the day before the start of the conference. People like Naomi Klein have argued that choosing to shut down civil society expression at COP21, while allowing other parts of the conference to go ahead, silences the voices of those who will be most affected by climate change.
Yet, for me, there is a silver lining here: it underlines the need to reach out to a wider range of activists - beyond Paris, beyond the Global North and beyond those interested in the environment. It also puts the spotlight on the fact that, sometimes under the cover of fighting terrorism, many governments are restricting the space in which civil society can organise and mobilise.
We know that civil society mobilises en masse and in force around key moments like COP21. Last year we saw the biggest climate protest in history, when more than 400,000 people joined the People's Climate March in New York ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit. And at some previous climate negotiations, there have been more civil society participants than all other registered participants put together. This kind of global action, this powerful international solidarity, is absolutely crucial to pressure our governments to take the brave decisions that are now so urgently required. Only people can give them this mandate, only people can raise the political price our politicians must pay for climate inaction.
In this context, what happens beyond the conference host city becomes just as, if not more, important. Our experience of mobilising around key sustainable developments during this year through the action/2015 initiative suggests that getting folk in far flung parts of the world to engage in global decision-making processes has potentially huge pay-offs. We have worked with partners in more than 150 countries to organise rallies, marches and debates around moments like the Addis Financing for Development conference and the Sustainable Development Goals Summit. These actions were incredibly important in building a truly global movement interested in sustainable development, and equally important in putting local pressure on policymakers to act, well before they got on the plane to New York. And, largely thanks to the thousands of organisations that mobilised as part of action/2015, not only was this past weekend's global climate mobilisation the biggest in history, but it was strongly linked to ending poverty and inequality - the result of working across civil society to address the common challenges we all face irrespective of our particular organisational focuses. This sort of scattered, small-scale mobilisation was hard work and less palpably fulfilling than organising a big rally or concert, but my overwhelming lesson is that we need to make a concerted effort to make sure that smaller and Southern mobilisation takes place around global moments.
This is why the events held this weekend as part of the Global Climate March were so important. Thousands of people turned out across the world, from India to Indonesia and Spain to South Africa -- a sign that we refuse to be constrained by the largely ceremonial and limited space offered by official set-piece meetings, while doing our utmost to connect the voice of the people to the boardroom discussions that will decide our future.
This collective action comes at a time when civil society, particularly environmental activists, is under siege all over the world. We are seeing a raft of threats to civic space and violations of civic freedoms that, in many parts of the world, are suffocating civil society organisations and citizen action.
My colleagues at CIVICUS documented serious threats to civic freedoms in 96 countries in 2014. Too often, these threats were aimed at those activists who dare to challenge vested interests around land and resources: the energy companies, the extractive industries, large scale agricultural and property development businesses. Recent killings of land rights activists have been reported in Honduras, Indonesia, Peru, the Philippines and Thailand, to name but a few. Governments around the world are responding to the activities of environmental activists with repression, criminalisation, and stigmatisation. The arrest of the Arctic 30 last year cast the spotlight of the world's media on to the increasingly complex and contested nature of civil society's struggle for climate justice, but it was by no means an isolated incident.
Building a resilient civil society in all parts of the world, able to enjoy its rights to freedom of assembly and expression, must be a vital component of our efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradation. One cannot happen without the other.
This post is part of an "Earth to Paris" series produced by The Huffington Post and Earth to Paris, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on Earth to Paris, "an innovative campaign and convening strategy to drive awareness and host events that highlight the connection between people and planet and the need for strong climate action," and is part of HuffPost's What's Working editorial initiative. To view the entire series, visit here.
Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He tweets at @civicusSG.